MIT professor talks about “plural urbanism” in urban design

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Brent Ryan, Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, presents his second book “The Largest Art: A Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism” as part of the 2018 Ekdahl Lecture Series at Regnier Forum on October 10 2018 (Alex Todd | College Media Group)

Brent D. Ryan, associate professor of urban design and public policy and head of the City Design and Development Group in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, gave a talk as part of the Oscar S. Ekdahl series on Wednesday.

Ryan focused the conference on ideas from his 2017 book, “The Largest Art: A Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism.” The book examines how urban design should be defined as plural rather than singular.

“I think urban design, unlike other forms of building arts, doesn’t have a singularity in its form,” Ryan said. “Urban design can actually be fragmented, but those fragments can still have a relationship with each other.”

Regional and Community Planning Junior Abbey Hebbert said she found Ryan’s ideas interesting because they incorporated a mix of aesthetic design and modern amenities.

“I really liked his vision of plural urbanism and how we just have to accept how the world is going to work,” Hebbert said. “The principles of urban planning must be able to flow with human life to be functional.”

Speaking of the advancement of urban design, Ryan said democracy has impacted urban design throughout history. Ryan used ancient Russia as an example to show how strong political power influences infrastructure in cities.

“Urban design actually has a close relationship with democracy and sometimes an inverse relationship with democracy,” Ryan said. “The less democracy you have, unfortunately, the more power you have to build urban design.”

Ryan said urban design is distinct from architecture, landscape architecture, and land art because it brings together various elements of a city. Ryan’s book examines how urban design is a distinct art form due to the size of cities.

“Some of the ideas I talk about in the book deal with cities getting bigger and more complex,” Ryan said. “As a city gets bigger and bigger, it seems to me that a lot of the ideas we had about urban design weren’t really appropriate for the kinds of cities we had, so for large, complex, growing cities today, I thought let’s try to reinvent what urban design can do.

Greg Newmark, assistant professor of landscape architecture and regional and community planning, said the Ekdahl series connects students and faculty to innovative thinking and resources.

“We are of course very lucky, even though we are located far from many innovation hubs, we are able to bring people in to keep us connected,” Newmark said.

Stephanie Rolley, professor and department head of landscape architecture and regional and community planning, said architecture, planning and design students have the opportunity to hear from a professional in their field each semester.

“The Ekdahl Series brings four speakers here each semester and there’s one who represents each of the college’s four disciplines,” Rolley said. “It’s really unique for a college to have a series like this and have it be as robust as ours.”

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